What’s the Point of the Academic Book? Part Two: Mari Shullaw

The Project was invited to speak at the BSECS 45th Annual Conference, which took place on Thursday 7th January 2016 at the University of Oxford. The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) is soon to launch its own book series, in association with Boydell & Brewer, and wanted to consult with its community on the form that this new series should take. Chaired by Professor Matthew Grenby (Newcastle), the provocatively-titled round table ‘What’s the Point of the Academic Book?’ included views from Project Research Associate Rebecca Lyons, Professor Tim Hitchcock (Sussex), and Mari Shullaw (Boydell & Brewer). The three views from each speaker will be posted in three parts – each perspective being published in its own blog post. The second, given here, is Mari Shullaw’s. Part One, by Rebecca Lyons, is here: https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/01/25/the-point-of-the-academic-book-part-one/

Mari_ShullawBoydell & Brewer is proud and pleased to be working with BSECS on the eighteenth-century studies series. We hope that it will be, in many ways, a reflection of this conference – a place where all the disciplines involved in eighteenth-century studies can meet and learn from each other.

Background on Boydell and Brewer

We are a smallish independent academic press, publishing about 150 books a year across the humanities. Founded by two medievalists – Derek Brewer and Richard Barber – and their ethos of scholarly publishing is still very much with us. The core of our publishing is monographs. We don’t publish journals and we don’t publish sciences.

Books are available to libraries on a variety of digital platforms including JSTOR and CUP’s University Publishing online and increasingly our more accessible titles are available as Kindle and ibooks. Nevertheless 80% of our sales are still “woodpulp” – not unusual among publishers in the humanities.

We haven’t yet published anything in Open Access, but that is because we have not been asked to do so. That is sure to change in the near future. At this stage rather than setting a tariff as some of our colleagues have done we’d prefer to talk to authors individually about what they and their funders are looking for and work from there.

In this paper I am going to side-step the philosophic and pedagogic issues involved in defining the point of the academic book, and settle instead for some reflections on the related but more manageable question of function.

Crisis – What crisis?

Signs of health for the academic book:

The long form academic book maintains its position at the heart of the humanities disciplines.

We are not short of new monograph publications. The Crossick report noted the four largest academic publishers had doubled monograph output in the last ten years, and seemed to regard this as a sign of health. I’m not so sure. Are there really twice as many monographs worthy of publication now as there were in 2004? It seems unlikely.

Signs of sickness for the academic book:

Sales have dwindled, and as the print runs have decreased so the prices have increased – and all this at a time when library budgets in the UK and other parts of the are being squeezed.

It is important not to overstate the importance of price here. The sheer bulk of what is available also plays its part, so bringing down prices, as we do when we publish in paperback, makes worryingly little difference to the numbers sold.

This story applies as much to books available in digital form as it does to print. Open Access as currently exercised would simply put the gate at the other end, with the authors of certain kinds of work and authors in certain institutional positions being unable to publish, rather than the public unable to read what they have written.

The way forward

In The Academic Book of the Future – the recent Palgrave Pivot (Nov 2015) [available to download for free here: http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137595768] commissioned and editing by the Project, Frances Pinter, of Manchester University Press and Knowledge Unlatched stated that:

The meaning of the word ‘book’ itself will never again be confined to that of a physical object to be held, admired, loved, subject to spilt coffee, or burning by dictators. The ‘book’ will be defined more around its function than any of its other characteristics.

In fact the elegy for the book as an object of love and a repository of memory is probably premature – but the point about function is well taken. We need to be looking at it where the book fits into the academic eco system and we need to look at this I think both from the point of view of the user of books – how does the academic book work as a tool of the academic trade? – and from that of the author – why do you write the books in the first place?

For the user a book has two main functions, which in the digital age one might describe very crudely as ‘browse’ and ‘search’, and which have implications for the medium in which books are accessed.

To the ‘browser’, the whole book is important. The browser values the journey – the way the argument is shaped, the meanders and the digressions. For this reader even noting the faults – the points where the argument is thin and the evidence is overstated – is part of the pleasure of the journey, and to this reader or to be more accurate to a reader in this mode style matters. It’s difficult to read in this way if a book is badly written. It is also – it is increasingly clear – somewhat difficult to read in this way electronically, at least as things stand at the moment. This is the sort of reading where you flip back and forth, remembering that there was a relevant passage two thirds of the way back at the top of the left hand page, where you underline and scrawl things in the margins. The full experience, which is sensory as well as intellectual, seems to require print and paper.

It has to be admitted that there are simply not enough hours in the day for browsing. Mostly we need to get through stuff, find what we need and move on. It’s here that the digital form comes into its own. There are three key requirements here:

  1. Discoverability: you need to know that the book exists and that it is relevant.
  2. Accessibility: you want it when you want it. This is one of the major advantages of the ebook, whether available through the university library or bought by an individual
  3. Searchability: find key information and arguments and move on.

And one thing which ebooks alone have the potential to provide is access to the original source material through hyperlinks, which as Tim [Hitchcock] discovered [during the London Lives project: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/58047/], can be a tricky business for publishers, but is still quite clearly the way of the future.

Working out these questions of function for the user is relatively simple, though the delivery may be more complicated. From the publishers’ point of view this is not a zero sum game. There is no reason why print and digital should not coexist happily for decades to come.

As far as the author’s side is concerned my role is to ask the questions, not to give the answers. In an interview after the publication of his report Crossick made the interesting point that “the monograph was not simply about dissemination but a way to think about the research itself – I call this ‘thinking through writing the book.’ There is an element of personal development here. It is in the process of turning a thesis into a first book – if this is done well – that a student becomes a scholar and this process is reiterated throughout an academic career. The writing of a book in the humanities in particular is a key part of the academic digestion.

But is this route too readily accepted as the norm? When I was a student, a good many of my older lecturers published relatively seldom and certainly not in monograph form. The pressures of a much more competitive job market and the REF have put paid to that, but are we simply assuming that the monograph is the point to which research tends? Are there actually too many, and should we be thinking instead of alternative modes of production? As the current problems with Open Access are ironed out there may be room for more journals, for instance. Digital publishing has made it easier for publishers to be more flexible about length, so we have experiments like the Palgrave Pivot series of intermediate publications of 30-50k words. The current Pivot publications are mostly in the social sciences, but would there be more room for similar in the humanities?

More radically the digital revolution, stuttering as it is, does provide the means by which the relation between author and readership, whether academic or more general can be reconfigured. As Bob Shoemaker states of the London Lives project on his Sheffield blog:

The reader would then be given the evidence to question our interpretations, come to different conclusions, or simply follow their own interests through the linked sources. The book we wanted to create would be so extensively interlinked that we would cede control of the narrative and our authority as authors could be challenged by readers following their own agendas.

There is a political project here about the balance of power between author and reader, which could be taken further.

What is the point of the academic publisher?

Finally, a few words on the question ‘what is the point of the academic publisher?’ – because I suppose that must be why I am part of this panel.

The first thing to be said is that there really is now no part of the publishing process, taken individually, that you could not do on your own if you wanted to. Nevertheless, I believe that we do still have a contribution to make.

Three things in particular:

  1. Time and consistency of effort

Between teaching, research, writing and university admin, self-publishing might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for you [the academic].

An academic publisher pulls together experience and efficiency across a range of things: editing, production and marketing.

  1. Attention

Good editors really want their authors to do well, and will invest time in this. A good editor, especially when working with a junior scholar, will spend time on helping to shape the proposal before it goes out for review, will interpret and mediate the reviews which often ask for contradictory or impossible things and will also do a fair amount of hand-holding and cheer-leading during the ups and downs of the process of writing a book.

  1. Detachment

All organisations have their own politics, but at least we [the publishers] are outside of the institutional politics of your universities.

We have no axe to grind apart from the rather innocent one of trying to make your book pay its way so that we can make a little profit and go on publishing more books.

One last word: I mentioned detachment just now, but of course as academic publishers we are only ever semi-detached. It is worth remembering that, however the power relations may look when you are in the middle of a dispute with your editor or having difficulty getting something published, in the end we are wholly dependent on you. If you sink, we sink, and if you really want us to go in a particular direction – and by that I mean not just as authors but as consumers – then that is the direction we will go.

We are in your hands.

 

A Storify of live tweets from the panel is available here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/what-is-the-point-of-the-academic-book

 

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